Friday, August 14, 2009

Mirror neurons, leadership and play

Great Kung Fu masters, virtuoso musicians, impressive orators and talented opera singers become brilliant by practicing ‘the moves” so what they do and say is fluent and automatic.

Why then do we expect our corporate leaders and teachers to be able to perform a complex management or teaching role with minimal rehearsal?

Why do we teach the theory of facilitation and leadership but not the "kinaesthetic" practice of orchestrating/organizing others in a live setting? Why do many universities train their teachers on-line or via lectures? How come many teachers go into the classroom to use a new technology after a quick read of the manual?

Orchestrating the mouth, tongue, larynx, cheeks, fingers, hands, legs and other muscles to perform complicated roles can be as complicated as learning to drive a motor car, for which we need a license to drive. In the State where I live, new drivers are required to have 100 hours of practice and keep a log to prove it.

The new routines we learn are what the famed Russian neuropsychologist, A.R. Luria calls “kinetic melodies” - templates for different combinations of speech and motor actions. Like a player piano roll for the human brain. And it takes time to sequence, orchestrate and automate complex speech and motor actions associated with each new role we choose to perform.

The key to success is considerable rehearsal, in front of a full length mirror, before a small and supportive audience or through the reflective eye of a video camera.

Much of this has to do with “mirror neurons”. These same neurons fire off in the brains of humans and monkeys when they watch an action and when they perform the same action.

This part of the brain helps you form a theory of mind about what the other person might say or do in response to what you say or do. So when you are dealing with a class of 20 or 30 young people or an audience of 50, it can become a very complex "hall of mirrors".

Mirror neurons are located in Broca’s area of the brain. They are adjacent to the motor neuron area where, says David McNeil, author of Gesture and Thought, "inputs from the right hemisphere, the frontal areas and the posterior regions of the left hemisphere...converge”. McNeil says “mirror neurons complete Mead’s loop in the part of the brain where action sequences are organized – the two kinds of sequential actions, speech and gesture, converging... It is damage to this part of the brain that makes it difficult to sequence actions into a new kinetic melody for the “orchestration of movement”.

This same part of the brain may also be involved in the orchestration of collective play, where children imitate or play at being mothers and fathers, cops and robbers or doctors and nurses, and as Vygotsky shows, perform as if they were “a head taller”. We now know that mirror neurons have a role in empathy and may also be implicated in autism. If a person is unable to form a strong or memorable image of another person’s actions as they perform a new role (how they deal with conflicts, help each other, develop good relationships, etc) they may be unable to imagine how their actions will impact on the other person.

So here’s a workshop to practice a new role.

1. Working in pairs, choose a new role to perform e.g. policeman, orchestra conductor. Watch your partner perform in their new role. Report back. What did they do and say?
2. A new role for you. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform in your organization, community etc, describe in detail the “language game” for that role (words, phrases, concepts, theoretical relationships/connections between concepts)?
3. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform, describe in detail the “gestural language game” for that role (movement, gestures, demeanour, stance, actions)?
4. Describe a situation in which you will perform your new role. What will you say and do?
5. Now each person will perform their role for a buddy. The other person makes notes about the performance and identifies the types of errors that the person makes (Think about previously learned speech/gestural routines, inner speech to guide your activity, the ideal speech/gesture) .
6. Write a new performance script using inner speech as the basis for guiding what you need to say and do.
7. Practise the speech/moves repeatedly until the motor/speech routines (“kinetic melodies”) become easy to do and you don’t have to consiously think about performing the role.

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